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January Cabinet 2008

January Cabinet 2008January 16th saw the first meeting of Fylde's Politburo Cabinet of 2008. These meetings are held in the moderately ornate Reception Room of the Town Hall, and these days, they have more non-participants than actual participants (The Politburo Cabinet is only the Commissar plus seven acolytes). It's not so much that it is packed with public these days though, it's more packed with Councillors who aren't on the Cabinet - It's the only way they get to find out what is happening as the Commissar's grip on the control of information tightens, and his mushroom system of management for non-Cabinet members (keep in the dark and feed on bulls**t) works its magic.

We went along to see what happened, and a precis of it follows. We will pick up some of the more interesting items in more detail in future articles.

North West Visitor Economy Pilot Projects
First off was the snappily named 'North West Visitor Economy Pilot Projects.'

Essentially this is a waste of time and money.

A company called Locum Consulting (who we will hence refer to as Locust Consuming as they will quite probably eat the scheme out of house and home), has been engaged by the North West Development Agency. (NWDA is an organisation that is an even bigger waste of money and more pointless than anything Fylde could aspire to be).

Locust Consumption were asked to "Assess the feasibility of developing the Visitor Economy Pilot Projects in the North West", and they have recommended St Anne's, along with five other NW locations to be developed as "Visitor Economy Pilots"

If you look at the small print on Locust's report you can see how reliable they are. Would you hire a consultant who said "All information, analysis and recommendations made for clients by Locum Consulting are made in good faith and represent Locum's professional judgement on the basis of information obtained from the client and elsewhere during the course of the assignment. However, since the achievement of recommendations, forecasts and valuations depends on factors outside Locum's control, no statement made by Locum may be deemed in any circumstances to be a representation, undertaking or warranty, and Locum cannot accept any liability should such statements prove to be inaccurate or based on incorrect premises. In particular, and without limiting the generality of the foregoing, any projections, financial and otherwise, in this report are intended only to illustrate particular points of argument and do not constitute forecasts of actual performance." we certainly wouldn't.

Our reading of this paragraph says: You pay us to ask you what you want us to say and we will produce the report you need, but don't hold us accountable for anything.

Anyway, the plan, superficially at least, is partly for FBC to screw a few sheckles out of the Blackpool and Lancashire Tourist Board, but mostly we think it will be to build some arguments for FBC to fork out cash of its own (which it reportedly doesn't have, so there's really no point in doing it anyway) in the hope of attracting private sector money.

Obviously, the report contained no indication of how much it would cost in the longer term - (don't want to frighten the horses) so the trick (as with so much of the Politburo's operation these days) is to go for an approval in principle now, and let the final report claim something like everything was approved back in January, and since we've spent so much on it already, and this [insert finding here] scheme offers the best chance of our future success as a tourist resort, so we have to go along with the recommendation.

So what are Locust Consumption actually going to do?

Well, for the most part they seem intent on disregarding anything the Council has done or decided before, and they plan to re-invent a number of wheels that are presently leaning quietly against the walls of the rooms dotted around the Town Hall.

We don't know the cost of this monumental waste of time, money and effort, but whatever it is, it's too much.

We think the real reason they are being sent in by the North West Development Agency is twofold. The minor reason is to weave the strands of tourism even more tightly in Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre as these three authorities are prepared for eventual unity and regionalisation. But the major reason is that it gives an excuse for NWDA to claim the credit for bringing the Open Golf here in 2012, in a crude attempt to justify their own existence.

They have nothing at all to do with this of course.

Successive generations of officers and Councillors at Fylde have worked with the R&A to bring the massive publicity and some economic benefits to the resort time after time. But one of the hallmarks of expensive, pointless and useless organisations like the NWDA is the extent to which they appear as if by magic out of the woodwork when something is going to happen anyway, to swan around at the last minute and claim the credit for the success of [in this case] what will be the hugely successful Open Golf Event.

Needless to say, the Politburo supported the plan to bring in the plague of Locusts.

Parish Charter
The next item was another waste of time and money. Fylde BC has designed a "Charter" to regulate? govern? condition? call it what you will, its relationship with Town and Parish Councils within its boundary. It wants Town and Parish Councils to 'sign up' to the new Parish Charter.

Most of these councils do a far better, more common sense, and practical job for their electorate than the present administration at Fylde could even imagine itself doing.

The first version of this so called "Charter" was appalling. We understand that Borough and Parish Councillor Lyndsay Greening from Wrea Green took hold of it and shook a lot of the rubbish out of it, and we commend her for doing that. But we still disapprove of the so-called Charter in principle.

A Charter is - by definition -  something which is in the gift of a person or body. A Charter is granted. It involves giving and receiving. Our dictionary defines it as a written grant by a sovereign or legislature, by which a body's rights and privileges are defined. In the UK it is also a written statement of the rights of a specified group of people.

By defining and prescribing rights and privileges, the giver of a Charter also (simply by creating the Charter) sets limits and conditions on the receiver, and may thus seek to limit its own liability.

Town and Parish Councils are sovereign, autonomous, and independent legislatures in their own right. They need no grant of right or privilege to function, and most especially they need no advice, grant or indeed, lesson, from the present incarnation of Fylde Council's Politburo.

Parishes should (and the more sensible will) refuse to have anything to do with this unnecessary 'Charter'

Open Space Management in Kirkham
This promised to be one of the more interesting items. The Politburo wants to dump the management of open spaces on Kirkham Town Council in a bid to reduce FBC's spending and increase Kirkham's precept charge. This is a bad move because 66% of Fylde's money comes from Government grant, so when Fylde spends £1 it costs local taxpayers 33p. Town and Parish Councils don't get Government grants, so when they spend £1 it costs local taxpayers £1. That's a significant increase in the present cost for local residents, with no benefit.

Fylde has previously said it has no intention of passing on a proportion of the Government grant to parishes, and it doesn't plan to reduce its own tax level by whatever Kirkham has to raise its parish taxes by, so unless Kirkham could make huge reductions in maintenance spending - we're pretty sure they will make some, but equally certain they won't be able to bridge the gap - the overall tax take would rise if this plan was implemented.

There are also some pretty monumental water and drainage problems in the Memorial Gardens that are, quite possibly, beyond he sensible financial scope of Kirkham to solve, but that's a matter for them to decide.

The first thing Kirkham wanted (very sensibly) was the freehold of any land they were responsible for (rather than a lease). Next, they wanted a schedule of dilapidation and (presumably) agreement on putting the land into order before they would discuss terms. Queen Elizabeth Oades is no dummy. We're sure she will be alert to, and watching these issues.

However, Fylde's officers hadn't got their finger out and sorted the information out, or had the meetings with Kirkham, so there was nothing to report.

Chief Executive Phillip Woodward concluded the item by saying that would probably make it difficult to have any agreement in place to sort it out for next year's budget.

That's bad news for the Commissar. He's banking on being able to con both Kirkham and St Anne's Town Council's into this deception so he can raise more Council Tax to spend himself within the Government's overall limit of 5%.

We've covered the arguments about his so called 'Equitable Taxation' (Now changed to 'Differential Taxation') ad-nauseum (But sadly, there will be more to come, because he hasn't given up yet). You can see some previous coverage here.

Notion of Motion - Accommodation
This was an item referred to the Politburo by the Mayor at the last Council meeting. It was raised at Council by Councillors Kevin Eastham and John Davies who, in essence said we ought to look at this again before we commit to spending more money. The circumstances have changed; we have less staff to house now, and will have even less in the future. The de-facto merger of Fylde with Wyre and maybe Blackpool will reduce our need for accommodation, so we should have a re-think now.

The Mayor decided he was not minded to let the whole Council debate the matter, (so much for his promise of even-handedness then), so he passed it on to the Politburo Cabinet where the Commissar could keep control of the item more tightly. (Which he did).

He made reference to there not being that many fewer staff to accommodate, and a more modern building would pay for itself in time through better heating efficiency and so on. Remember he will need to recover at least £7 million, (not the £5 million he told our media porkies about) and as we all know, it will be £10 million or more by the time it is built (if it ever is).

Cllr Eastham was trying to get the scheme moved to "his suggested site" (which we believe is site adjacent to and behind the Public Offices on Clifton Drive South). He said this would cost £2 million less than the cost of using the Town Hall and Chaseley site. He was chided by the Chief Executive for quoting costs from secret reports that were not in the public domain, and if they wanted to discuss costs, they should go into secret session.

The Commissar said he didn't want to open debate on the matter (we can easily understand why he wouldn't want to do that). He said the land disposals to fund it would go ahead anyway, whether or not the New Town Hall was built. He said Cllr Eastham has is pet scheme, and others had theirs, and Cllr Eastham's was ruled out some years ago. So there.

Cllr John Davies put up spirited arguments against moving forward with the current plans, and said he simply couldn't understand how we could contemplate a building like the one proposed when the future was a 'City of the Fylde' as the Commissar was so keen to tell us all the time in the press.

At this point the Commissar slapped him with a put-down and said, in effect, The City of the Fylde is no longer on the agenda so you're wasting your time. The Government has decided not to create any more Unitary Councils until they see how this first lot work out. So there will be no merger. At this point the rest of the Politburo piled in to add their support for the Commissar.

We didn't believe a word of this, and neither did Cllr Davies who subsequently said he thought the Commissar's talk of mergers involved several red herrings and asked when the announcement had been made. The Commissar said on 14 December Hazel Blears made the announcement that the Government had sidestepped the issue. The Local Government review in Lancashire was dead.

At this point the Chief Executive Phillip Woodward stepped in (quite properly, give the deceptive doublespeak the Commissar had just indulged himself in) to say that the Joint Working schemes, sharing of services and staff, and Multi Agency Agreements would continue as before.

Commissar Coombes had tried to pretend (and confuse people into thinking) the highly damaging comments he made to the Press about merging with Blackpool and Wyre were now history. What he actually meant was, we're carrying on just as before with our plans to create the City of the Fylde by stealth, but the Government has said formal consideration is off the agenda for the time being.

What an appalling and deceptive way for the leader of a Council to behave.

The Politburo vote was to carry on regardless. (No surprise there them)

We'll be bringing you more on this huge White Elephant of a scheme shortly.

Performance Exception Report
This is supposedly a piece of housekeeping - it is the regular report of the performance statistics for Fylde. As we have said before, we fundamentally disagree that a local council should be set targets by Government through the Audit Commission. ALL decisions and policies of a local council should emanate from local people, not national policy. So whilst there are (mostly) areas of 'underperformance' according to the stats, we're not going to waste time with them here, except to say the cost of collecting, monitoring and producing these statistics takes up staff time, increases overheads, and detracts from time spent on proper, relevant issues.

The New National Performance Management
Framework 2008/09: Performance Indicators

Another gross waste of time and money - but in this case, one that Fylde can't avoid. Recognising that hardly anyone pays any attention to their present targets and league tables for local councils (or perhaps because some people are actually getting to understand them?) Government is abandoning the present system and introducing a new one.

It's difficult to tell whether these new stats are coming to massage the results - like the "seasonally adjusted" unemployment figures that Thatcher introduced, or whether the 'New Management' at the top of New Labour is adopting the 'change = progress' mantra that the former leader was so fond of implementing when things looked grim. (In this case it was change = the illusion of progress).

Either way, they're another waste of time and effort.

Code of Corporate Governance
This was difficult to assess. Written by Council Solicitor Ian Curtis, you can't really tell from the report where this is going. (That's possibly intentional). Ostensibly, it sets up a new committee to "inform the re-writing" of the Council's present Code of Corporate Governance. (Note they aren't going to be given chance to write and debate what's in it, only to "inform" it). This could be nothing more than another bout of navel-examination and time wasting, by given the innocuous report, we're suspicious it will probably turn into more power for the Commissar and less say for the bulk of elected representatives. We're even more suspicious when it was passed with almost no debate at all. We'll keep watch here for our readers

Council Taxbase
A technical report by new finance supremo Bernard Hayes from Preston (Fylde is now subcontracting its financial management to Preston City Council).

From the reports coming back to us, he is a much better bet than the really nice but, well, we hesitate to say 'incompetent', but the sentiment is somewhere in that area, former occupant of the financial chair. We're hearing stories of his being appalled at the financial mess he found when he looked into the books at Fylde (counterbalance readers won't be surprised at this news).

We also hear he has done a lot of shaking-up in departments where things had become too lax, and he might have encouraged some people to look elsewhere for 'career advancement'. We also heard currently unrepeatable stories (because we have not been able to substantiate them yet) of irregularities that have been uncovered. We're on the trail of these and hope to bring you more.

If the reports of more stringent financial control are true, we applaud his efforts.

Less happy are we about what seems to be an early desire to keep what might turn out to be dirty linen and unhappy financial information out of sight. It seems to be a hallmark of this profession in local authorities that all problems should be dealt with in private, and no one outside the higher echelons should get to know about them. Readers will know that's not something we agree with, and we will just have to dig a bit deeper in future.

First set of data to bite the dust is the Taxbase information. This is the annual statement of how many "Band D Equivalent" properties exist in Fylde.

Council tax is levied on this theoretical number of households. Some properties are 'Band A' and pay less. Some are 'Band H' and pay (a lot) more, so in this calculation if Band H Council Tax is twice the cost of 'Band D' then a 'Band H' property would count as two Band D's

So you get a theoretical number of 'Band D' equivalent properties, and divide this into the Council Tax budget you need for the next year, to get the cost to be charged for a Band D property. For a Band H property you might double it (with other grades in-between being pro-rata). There are a few other adjustments made, but readers will get the idea.

This report explains we currently have 29,953 Band D equivalent properties in Fylde.

It goes on to give breakdowns for each Parish (because Parishes need to charge their own, separate council tax precept) and so on.

The report is always interesting and useful for all sorts of purposes e.g. when assessing which areas have the bigger, higher value houses and so on.

However as well as asking the Politburo to approve the Taxbase, Mr Hayes also asked for delegated authority to approve it himself each year. That's not necessarily a problem so long as it is published where folk can get at it. We'll keep an eye on that one too.

Medium Term Financial Strategy
Oh Joy! What a plethora of information to digest and report. Huge overspends predicted, balanced by a massive raid on what were supposed to be reserves earmarked for particular purposes. We're on the case here, and will have a full report shortly.

Article 4 Direction
Another major issue relating to plans for the airport. In simple terms the Council can put signs up all along the boundary with the airport saying to residents there "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter" They've caved in even before the fight, and abandoned residents in the North of St Anne's to the rape and pillage of the development company that owns the airport land. Reporting the decision not to apply for an "Article 4 Direction" that could control such development, Cllr Roger Small expressed his own dismay at the decision he felt obliged to report. We will bring you more on this shortly.

Individual Cabinet Member Decisions
Such is the lack of democracy now at Fylde Council, that power to take some decisions is vested in individual "Portfolio Holders". With appropriate notice, these people can now make decision that once needed the support of a majority for the 50-odd council members.

More efficient they say.

We say Pohl Pot and the Dear Leader would be an even better option if you are prepared to countenance that sort of corrupt logic.

Anyway, this item was to report, for information purposes only (sic) the individual decisions that had been taken since the last meeting. These included:

  • The proposed Garden of Fame (to hold the proposed Les Dawson statue) near the pier;
  • The Interim Housing Policy (approval of the draft to be used to consult the public);
  • Request for increase in hackney carriage fares, and;
  • The Human Resource Service shared with Blackpool.

The latter is not so much shared, as transferred, and will cost Fylde's taxpayer £119,000 a year as a fixed cost, and a variable per capita figure which for next year will total a lunacidal and disgraceful £199,000, a year with no option to get out for two years, as we showed in 'Human Contract'

The Housing policy is something we will report on shortly.

The Garden of Fame is interesting. Cllr Kevin Eastham jumped up and said "This will need planning permission." Chief Executive Philip Woodward replied, "That is simply a matter of fact. If it needs it, an application will be made".

Then Saint Barbara Pagett waded in, firstly to suggest to Councillor Renwick (Portfolio holder for Tourism and Culture) that before he took such decisions in future, he should notify the Ward Councillors of affected wards. This upset the Commissar (who hasn't had much time for St. Barbara since he excommunicated her), and he interjected to remind the non-cabinet Councillors and public present that as Chairman he was in charge of what was and was not discussed, and this was an item for information, not for debate or comment. He ordered St Barbara to sit down and refused to allow her to raise the second point she had intended to raise (Which was, we understand, to ask the Legal Officer whether planning permission was, in fact, needed).

It's quite probable he would not have known anyway, this is a complex technical matter, and if it isn't required, it wouldn't be the first time a construction has been erected by the Council with no planning permission having been sought first.

For example, within the last year or two, an appalling concrete monstrosity called a skateboard facility was dumped in Ashton Gardens, a Grade II listed garden that is also supposedly also protected by conservation area status. This was plonked down with all the aesthetic sensitivity of a rutting stag, and worse still, no landscaping to soften or hide the ugly lump of concrete that it is.

So there may not be much point in getting excited about planning permission for the garden of fame.

There does seem to be more local opposition to this scheme than we would have expected to see.

Most people round here seem to have forgotten that, almost single handedly, Les raised the first £1 million for the MRI Scanner appeal.

An awful lot of people in this area owe him more than respect as a professional comedian and gentleman.

Exclusion of the Public to discuss
Early Surrender of the Cafe Lease Ashton Gardens

This item was to clear the public gallery of genuine public (as opposed to non-cabinet Councillors) so the Politburo Cabinet could debate arrangements for early termination of the cafe lease. The Council has not treated the tenant in this building very well, and wants to terminate the tenancy in 12 months time.

Unfortunately - probably due to an administrative oversight - the online version of the agenda still had the item attached when it was published on the internet. (Not the first time this sort of mistake has happened, we had one report a year or two back which was an excel spreadsheet with the salaries on it).

Typically this can happen with a late report, or one that is altered late, and everything is rushed, and someone forgets to take the final item off before publication. To be fair to Fylde's staff, the admin people are now so pressed; it's amazing it doesn't happen more often.

Another member of the public had downloaded this agenda. He stood up and said "In view of the fact that this report is no longer confidential and has been published on the Council's website so it is in the public domain, is it still necessary for the public to be excluded". This brought a curt "Yes" from the Commissar who was clearly unhappy at having his negotiating position with the cafe operator - who we believe had a copy provided as soon as it was published - (by someone who must be even more on the ball than we are). For the public, the meeting ended at this point.

We have a copy of this 'secret' report, and if anyone wants one, they should get in touch with us.

We'll have more detail on some of these items - especially the medium term financial strategy - soon

Dated:  20 January 2008


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